Free house for students

February 2, 1996

There was something incongruous yet deeply familiar, even comforting, about the press launch of the Campaign for Free Education's nominations for the forthcoming NUS National Executive elections.

Memories of student days came flooding back as the pugnacious campaign secretary Graham Hellawell used his not inconsiderable oratorical skills to overcome successive taped songs about love and rebellion pumping out of the speakers in O'Rafferty's bar near Archway, London.

Pubs are, and have long been, the ideal venues for young leftwingers - and occasionally rightwingers - because they are cheap and feel essentially proletarian. If they are Irish, or have names like The Red Flag or the Internationale Bar, then so much the better.

It was a case of deja vu and deja entendu as Mr Hellawell took to his feet, at the back of the hugely empty bar room, near the lavatories, and hammered out the campaign's commitment to free tuition and grants for all students. He looked angry throughout most of his passionate speech and when he wound up there was applause from the dozen or so people present. He then introduced the temporarily subdued national executive committee candidates who included the presidential candidate Clive Lewis.

Mr Lewis, currently NUS vice president education, is a student politician of a different ilk. He is the good-looking, perhaps charismatic, front man for the group, with an obviously strong moral sense of what he is sure is right and wrong.

So, flanking the moral high ground, I asked him if he thought society could afford the campaign's demand for a return to full grants for all. "It is people's right to go into higher education and better themselves and I will always strive for that," he said. "Current opinion says grants for everyone are unrealistic but if we are to have any kind of civilised society then it must have an education system where people are put first and foremost."

As the political passion subsided, they thanked me for turning up to their press conference which, bar me, was devoid of journalists.

* The NUS has just released the names of the 49 candidates who will contest 18 national executive seats up for election at this year's national conference in March. And 23 of these students will be contesting the six national executive committee seats. Only two committee members will be seeking re-election to their present posts. President Jim Murphy and national secretary Ben Elger are standing down after both serving two years.

The Campaign for Free Education, has been particularly vocal in its bid to win all six executive committee seats. It gained the support of Labour's veteran MP for Chester Tony Benn, who spoke at a later campaign press conference held in the House of Commons on Monday.

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